Introduction: The aim of this study was to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis for determining the effects of prehospital adrenaline administration on return of spontaneous circulation, hospital admission, survival to discharge and discharge with cerebral performance category 1 or 2 in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest patients. Methods: MEDLINE and Scopus databases were searched to identify studies reported to March 2014. Study selection and data extraction were independently completed by two reviewers (PA and SR). The baseline characteristics of each study and number of events were extracted. Risk ratios (RR) and 95% confidence interval (CI) were estimated. Heterogeneity and publication bias were also explored. Results: In total 15 studies were eligible and included in the study. Of 13 adult observational studies, four to eight studies were pooled for each outcome. These yielded a total sample size that ranged from 2,381 to 421,459. A random effects model suggested that patients receiving prehospital adrenaline were 2.89 times (95% CI: 2.36, 3.54) more likely to achieve prehospital return of spontaneous circulation than those not administered adrenaline. However, there were no significant effects on overall return of spontaneous circulation (RR = 0.93, 95% CI: 0.5, 1.74), admission (RR = 1.05, 95% CI: 0.80, 1.38) and survival to discharge (RR = 0.69, 95% CI: 0.48, 1.00). Conclusions: Prehospital adrenaline administration may increase prehospital return of spontaneous circulation, but it does not improve overall rates of return of spontaneous circulation, hospital admission and survival to discharge. Electronic supplementary material: The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13054-014-0463-7) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.